Dark Nantucket Noon by Jane Langton

A total eclipse. A murdered woman found dead, bleeding from a stab to her chest, at the feet of the one woman who had most cause to hate her, her husband’s former lover…who just happened to be holding a bloody knife? What could the police do but arrest the living woman?

Kitty Clark has come out to the island of Nantucket to view the eclipse, as that’s the place closest to her from which the eclipse can be viewed in totality. While she does know that her ex-lover, Joe Green, is living on Nantucket with his new wife, she does not know that they have planned to view the eclipse from the lighthouse at the tip of Great Point…and heads out there herself. She reaches the lighthouse just as the eclipse reaches totality, and screams in terrified exultation as darkness descends.

Unfortunately, a dead body has descended from the lighthouse to land at her feet, revealed to her and to the other eclipse viewers up in the lighthouse. Kitty is arrested on circumstantial evidence—she is holding a bloody knife, and she is the only person on the beach in physical proximity to the dead woman—although she is soon released on bail. It is here that Langton’s ‘detective’, retired police officer Homer Kelly, makes his appearance; he is no longer an official member of any law agency and was merely on Nantucket to research Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.

One land preservation trust, an international phone call to a Swiss lawyer and a few plots involving whaling later, the mystery is solved. Nice set-up, I have to admit—having been through a total eclipse myself, I can attest to the fact that they are exactly that creepy—although as with many cosies, this should probably be taken with a grain of salt. Homer Kelly’s tendency to break things and his height get old fast.

I have to appreciate this mystery for three reasons. For one thing, Langton has laid her clues out in a logical sequence that many cozy mystery authors might do well to emulate; I could only think of Father Knox’s tongue in cheek list of rules regarding the plotting of mysteries, in which the eighth reads “The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.”1. It is absolutely clear who killed Helen Green, and why, once the book comes to a conclusion. (There’s also a nod to rule #2: “All superna[t]ural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.”) Also, she manages to give a fairly accurate sense of place and description of Nantucket’s people and landscape without devolving into mere travelogue; it’s more than slightly dated now, 35 years after the book’s original publication, but interesting nevertheless. Lastly, I really do have to admire an author who can work in a reasonably accurate scientific explanation of the circumstances which rendered the murderer able to off zir victim…and it’s not just the fact that it’s kind of dark during a total eclipse of the sun.

Discovery News commentary on science in mysteries

1I first heard about in Skvorecky’s Sins for Father Knox


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